Power forward Junior Etou, a controversy magnet even before arriving at Rutgers two years ago, will be transferring to Tulsa.
The departure is not unexpected. Etou’s run at Rutgers was troubled from the start. He was suspended by the NCAA for six games at the beginning of his freshman season for what the school announced as receiving “impermissible benefits” prior to enrollment. Then this January, coach Eddie Jordan very publicly benched Etou for one game for what the head coach described as attitudinal lapses. The school announced he’d be leaving shortly after the season ended.
Etou was Jordan’s first big signing after taking the Rutgers job in 2013. By then, Jordan knew Etou’s murky past. He had coached Etou for D.C. Assault, the AAU powerhouse founded and for years run by Curtis Malone, the legendarily influential and shady godfather of amateur hoops in the nation’s capital. Malone, who was also Etou’s legal guardian when he moved to the U.S. from his native Republic of Congo to play basketball, is now in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges relating to his being the kingpin of a heroin and cocaine dealing ring.
So Jordan was surely well versed on Etou’s controversial back story, highlighted by age discrepancies that had followed him to America. To enroll at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Va., Etou used a birth certificate that claimed a 1994 birthday. Records from previous stints playing for the Congo’s national team before his immigration, however, indicated he had actually been born in 1992. The new paperwork allowed Etou to remain eligible to play high school basketball into his 20s. He took advantage of the extra time: while playing alongside budding University of Maryland star Melo Trimble, Etou helped O’Connell win the championship in the singularly tough Washington Catholic Athletic Conference, likely the most competitive prep hoops league in the country.
At the time of the WCAC tournament, in which Etou scored the deciding points in both the semifinal and title games, he was nearly 21 years old. Rival coaches and even O’Connell alumni accused the school of cheating to win a title.
Rutgers made what sure appeared to be a concerted effort to conceal Etou’s past. The bio released by the school’s athletic department before his freshman season made no mention that Etou had played for the Congo national team years before he’d come to the U.S. The Rutgers media guide also listed a June 4, 1994 birthday for Etou, even though FIBA, the international sanctioning body for amateur basketball, had investigated the Etou age situation and ruled that the paperwork he was using in America was bogus. Before his sophomore year, Rutgers removed Etou’s birth date entirely from his bio. At that time, an athletic department spokesman told me that the deletion was made “for privacy reasons.” Online scouting services now use the 1992 birth date for Etou.
Why Tulsa? Well, Etou has said he’s a cousin of Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, who is also from the Congo. Both Ibaka and Etou grew up playing for the same youth club, the Brazzaville Red Devils. And in 2007, Etou had followed Ibaka to France to play club hoops, and then to the U.S. after Ibaka became an NBA star.
He will have to sit out a season before playing for Tulsa, then will have two years of NCAA eligibility left. That means Etou, by his official FIBA age, will be about 26 years old when that runs out. That is not old enough to impact his eligibility, since the NCAA in general gives athletes five years to complete four years of eligibility (not counting various exemptions, none of which apply here), and doesn’t start the clock until high school graduation—even if a student stays in high school until he’s 21.
But Etou remains a hot issue back at his old high school. At a February meeting with the school’s administration, a group of angry alums demanded that Joe Vorbach, whose title is head of school, confess to having cheated two years ago by letting Etou play despite knowing he was too old. “Joe would neither confirm nor deny,” says one of the O’Connell alums who attended the meeting. Vorbach did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
An alumni group had petitioned the Vatican last year to force the Catholic Archdiocese in Arlington to rein in what they saw as a godless athletic department at the parochial school, hellbent on winning sports titles, morality be damned. O’Connell’s use of Etou was among the alleged sins. As of this writing, the Pope had not intervened.